Television has long challenged Americans with heavy themes and difficult questions. Political drama The West Wing showcased the challenges faced by policymakers as distrust of government mounted. 24 raised the issue of domestic terrorism in a world still scarred by the events of September 11, 2001. Such topics, however, have never been the province of animation. Shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons may occasionally turn political or engage in social commentary, but few have dared raise the issues of traditional dramas. A young girl from the South Pole is changing that.
The Legend of Korra imagines a world drawn from Eastern philosophies with a distinctly Western flavor. Inhabited by individuals with the ability to manipulate or “bend” the elements, the world is divided into five great nations based on elemental alignment; the far-removed Water Tribes, the peaceful Air Nomads, the expansive Earth Kingdom, and the militaristic Fire Nation. Last but not least is the United Republic, an independent state that acts as a crossroads and unofficial global capital at Republic City. And in the middle of it all is titular character Korra. As the Avatar, she alone has the ability to bend all four elements and acts as a conduit between the human world and the spirits which endowed humanity with bending.
The basic premise and setting are necessary holdovers from the show’s more child-friendly prequel, Avatar: The Last Airbender (though even Avatar featured an uncommonly mature plot for a Saturday morning cartoon). Like its predecessor, Korra is marketed toward young adults but written with older viewers in mind. Its premiere episode establishes that much as Republic City’s social structure begins to crumble from within. Tensions between benders and non-benders have simmered for centuries, exacerbated by the Fire Nation’s genocidal war in the original series. Now it’s all coming to a head.
The previous century saw incredible technological advancement, remaking a feudal world with industry. As a result, a once-spiritual society has lost its connection to its past; benders forget the purpose of their abilities and turn to professional sports or even thuggery. Yet despite the change, benders retain most positions of power the world over. While Korra strives to master airbending and complete her training, a masked figure called Amon preys on these divisions to rally an army and “equalize” Republic City by force. Claiming the spirits have lost faith in the Avatar, he says they’ve chosen him to take back their gift and purge the world of bending.
Drawing heavily on 1920s society and political upheaval, Korra‘s themes speak for themselves. The Equalists seem fictional cousins to the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia, and Amon’s propaganda bears a striking resemblance to that of Chinese Maoists. By contrast, Republic City is modeled on New York, complete with central island of skyscrapers and a take on the Statue of Liberty. Though the writers avoid direct comparisons (this is supposed to be an entirely different world from our own) the parallels to Gilded Age America and Marxist revolution are as clear as they are effective.
Much of the allegory will be lost on youngsters looking for another Saturday morning cartoon, but there’s plenty for an older audience to appreciate. Humor ranges from silly to mature but always delights, while Oriental meets jazz in a surprisingly winning soundtrack. And Korra‘s often jaw-dropping action sequences are nothing short of spectacular. There’s nothing quite like elemental martial artists duking it out atop a skyscraper.
Nothing is as it seems, of course, and Korra explores other themes from the corruption of power to the consequences of mercy. The Avatar herself struggles to understand her purpose in a world that, by many measures, no longer needs her. And as war threatens to destroy everything Republic City stands for, viewers are left to wonder just where it all went wrong. Animation skeptics needn’t fear; this is truly something special.
At its heart, The Legend of Korra is as powerful and moving as any war story or political drama. It may be animated, but it’s by no means a mere children’s cartoon. Korra speaks of awesome superhuman abilities, a civilization on the brink, and a girl from the South Pole with the power to change her world forever. With a little luck, she may just change ours, too.
You can read more by Daniel Shea on his blog, Outside(r)LookingIn.